This month I sat down with Nashville-based actor and social entrepreneur Emily Landham to talk about her approach to creativity and art. I've known Emily almost all my life and probably wouldn't have guessed when we were small kids that we would have such unique yet similar career paths one day. I've been watching Emily from a bit of a distance the past few years and when I was brainstorming about who I wanted to interview, Emily was at the top of the list. I've been intrigued by her story of graduating at the top of her acting class at NYU, to immediately getting cast in a critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway show, and then somewhat abruptly moving to Nashville and starting over. Enjoy the conversation with Emily.
HS: What does creativity mean to you?
EL: I feel like every human being is innately creative. Some people don't necessarily have more of it [creativity] but they can’t get away from it. Some people are burdened with it rather than occasionally blessed by it. I fall into that category— “burdened by it.” Creativity belongs to everyone. I’m not a fan of the “select few” philosophy. It’s also a commitment. Creativity is dependent on the practical relationship between yourself and your instrument. How much are you willing to give it? It’s work. It’s a lot of work.
HS: Can you tell me about how you were first drawn to acting?
EL: I was always very quiet. I was straight up shy. I think perhaps—healthy or not—acting was a way to connect in a formal way. It’s ultimately a very formal way of communication. It can seem chaotic but it was organized chaos. It felt safe. I showed up more when acting, when memorized, as opposed to human to human moments. I also love to play pretend. I love to imagine something that isn’t there until it almost is. The Tom Sawyer play was my first. I played the girl, Amy? I do think mostly my love of acting, is about my love to communicate, connect, work with people, and collaborate but I love doing it in a formal setting.
HS: You studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and in other celebrated studios throughout the years. What is one of the greatest lessons you learned about creative expression in your training?
EL: The heart and soul of acting I learned from my childhood and from Wynn Handman. I learned professionalism, skill, and technique at NYU. Wynn helped me get the heart that I lost at NYU. It was about rigid expression. He does not teach technique, he demands honesty. He says incredible things like he wants to "help us find the agitation of the essence.” You go into the class thinking: “What the hell does that mean?” He’s not afraid to turn an actor into a child. Remember how easy it was to see things as a child? NYU is professional about acting. Wynn Hangman Studio is holy about acting. To them storytelling can save people and change the world. I can have the best British accent of anyone on that stage but unless I am meeting that with an absolute need to tell the story then what am I doing up there? That’s what he retrieved from me—to not be afraid to see the things that nobody else sees. Acting is not about being seen; it’s about seeing. And inviting the audience to see with you. Each material is like a human being. When you meet a new human, you have to gauge—are they a handshaker? A hugger? We adapt who we are to get to know someone and also maintain authenticity. You adapt your approach. That’s why he doesn’t like technique. Some plays he would say “just memorize the lines. and try not to think about it.” Other plays we need to do serious work and do backstory, etc. He was there to maintain the integrity and break all the rules.
"Acting is not about being seen; it's about seeing."
HS: After graduating you booked a critically acclaimed production of CRIPPLE OF INISHMAN. You were headed for Broadway and no doubt, a film career. Not long after that you completely changed your gameplan: you relocated to Nashville and started Branded. Why the sudden huge change?
EL: I’m so glad I left. It was an interesting and tumultuous time for me. Right when I graduated I did have some big things happening and it was helpful and exciting. When I decided to leave, that was fueled by my finances. From the outside it looked like I was kicking butt, but there were way more “no’s” than “yesses.” I have a tendency to focus on the “no’s.” I was priming myself for disappointments. I wanted more Oscars than Kathryn Hepburn. When I came back [to Nashville] I was not intending to stay. I was home for the holidays. I was walking down 5th avenue by some homeless men who were laughing. On the right was a bus with a friend of mine on the side of it. I was jealous of the homeless men for laughing and the friend on the right for being successful. I didn’t know what I wanted. Success or die. I came back home and decided to stay home for two months then come back. I needed more time to not act. I needed to paint and live at home for awhile. Then Nashville Shakes was doing ROMEO AND JULIET. I thought ,”What the heck. I might as well try. Since then I’ve booked 8 or 9 shows here. And I’m booking some national commercials and films that are pretty big. In some ways it was grace. Who knows what would’ve happened if I had stayed. My weariness brought me home, and it just so happened that the south is kind of popping. It might be good “bigger fish in a smaller pond.” Staying in Nashville made me a better actor. Even if I wasn’t gonna do the huge roles and multimillion movies, NYC Is a city of specialities. I want to be an actor and run a social enterprise and write in the morning. Coincidentally or not coincidentally it makes me a better actor. I like that better. I’ve done the best performances of my life in Nashville. I’m southern through and through. I love the south and thrive in the south.
HS: Tell us about the BRANDED Collective! How was it started and what does it do?
EL: The BRANDED Collective employs survivors of human trafficking from Nashville-based non-profit End Slavery Tennessee. The women work with local artisans to design and handcraft the jewelry collection. 25% of the profits go to the rescue and restoration of survivors.They’re in desperate need of work, money, and resume building. Most of them have criminal records. We train them in the art and craft of jewelry building. It’s a jewelry collection of beautiful different metal jewelry. Each piece contains a number that represents the practice of branding. 28 million people have been trafficked. Many victims of human trafficking are branded. Their captors physically mark them with a number or symbol. The process is often violent: a forced tattoo, a burn or knife cut. They’re branded like a cow. It strips them of their name. When you receive your item from the BRANDED Collective, you are BRANDED. Each piece contains a unique number that represents one of the millions trapped in the nightmare of trafficking. Become a number to restore a name. We have five that work with us—two at a time. End Slavery works very closely with the FBI. These women are definitely in the early stages of restoration.
HS: How do you balance running your company and still pursue acting and producing?
EL: I’m not sure I am making it work. (Laughs) I’m trying real hard. The dream is to act and run BRANDED. Neither of those make a consistent enough income. I’m also producing. And that is my day job. I still nanny every now and again. I’m learning I have to be able to say "no." When you’re starting a business, everyone wants to help, and have coffee, and share their good idea. If I don’t have time I need to say “no.” The other thing that I’m just now becoming aware of is “don’t f—- around.” One reason New York was hard for me, is that I want to please people when I ask for something. If you want to succeed just ask for something. Last week I got in touch with an agent in Atlanta. At some point she said “You are awfully aggressive.” I don’t need to waste time being too sweet or too careful or waiting for the right moment or hoping that I’m not bothering someone. Ask. If they don’t get back to me ask again. And then if they don’t get back ask again. I don’t have time to be timid anymore or even pleasant. (Laughs) Kidding. Do be pleasant.
HS: What are your big crazy goals in your career(s)?
EL: I was such a goal-setter in college, I’m almost becoming less of a goal setter. Part of setting good goals is setting realistic goals. I’m not really good at setting realistic goals. I’m kind of in a goal sabbatical to learn realism. I do have the goal of BRANDED where we have salaries—me and my co-founder. I would love to be able to employ five survivors full time. I would love to give five women full time work. That’s a very lofty goal. I’m really impressed with how much we’ve done in just a few years. Acting, at this point in my career, those things have resulted in serious disappointment and prevented me from seeing the incredible opportunities that I have had. By setting lofty acting goals—which are very much out of our control—I’ve stolen some joy from myself.
HS: What is your advice to a young creative who wants to do more than one thing?
EL: Do it! I think it’s awesome. Know going into it that you will have to be particularly organized. You’re going to have to know how to say “no.” If you want to do that much and spend time with everybody and please everybody I just don’t think it’s going to work. I don’t think you can do everything. I want to write books and paint and play piano, but acting and BRANDED are really where I put my focus. There will have to be some prioritizing. If there are five careers you want then you may need to reconsider that. But if there’s two, I absolutely believe in multifaceted careers. But do be realistic about it. That will look different for everybody depending on what they’re looking at. I think there’s a book called Multiple Careers that’s really good.
HS: Any parting thoughts?
EL: I do think that it's important to schedule in time for rest and fun, to watch a Netflix or go on a date. The moment that all the things that you’re pursuing means you’re not reading new books, working out, sleeping, seeing friends, then you are out of balance. I do think for someone who advocates saying “no”—things can be thriving but if I'm really irritable, not eating, not sleeping or working out or reading, for me, those things that fill you up and bring you pleasure, if you’re so busy you’re not doing those things, then stop viewing those successes as a good thing. Success is not worth your own self losing joy or becoming irritable. I also don’t think busyness is a sign of status.
Read advice from Emily and other thriving creatives in my eBook “5 Minute Mentor for Creatives”. Grab your copy here.
If you liked this conversation with a creative you may want to go back and read the conversations with John, a filmmaker, and Karen, a writer. And if you really like the blog, well then it makes sense to just subscribe, right? Also, I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. There's a lot of creative conversation to be had.